The nature of work was forecast to change well before the virus hit. So instead of thinking in terms of ‘lost months’, let’s take this opportunity to provide students with experience of the new workplace roles, says Bev Jones

There’s no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic is having a hugely negative impact on young people’s education. While the focus remains on getting children back into school and college safely, those of us in FE realise that there will be many wider implications for post-16 education.

Industry placement plays a vital role in preparing young people for work. The work we do with our Career Colleges has real-life interactions with employers at its heart – but the lockdown has brought many physical placements to a standstill. With more employees working remotely and social distancing measures in place, employers have been understandably less willing and, indeed, less able to take students on.

However, we are encouraging our colleges to view this challenging period as an opportunity to change the status quo and to think outside of the box when it comes to providing students with authentic experiences of work.

The reality is that the nature of “work” was forecast to change well before the virus hit. Digital technology has been having a disruptive effect on every sector of industry for some years. The inevitable consequence of this is that businesses will change the way they operate. The Bridging the Digital Divide report from the Open University last year stated that 37 per cent of workplace roles would change in the next five years – and this was without the impact of Covid-19.

The workforce of the future will need increased digital skills, as technology is already changing and impacting every job role. So rather than viewing the current situation as “lost months” – we should be looking on it as a great opportunity to provide students with the chance to experience the impact of these workplace changes first-hand.

Experiencing the physical environment of a good industry placement is of course important. But do not forget that it is also extremely beneficial for young people to have interactions with a range of employers. The Gatsby Benchmark recommends two encounters with employers, but the Career Colleges Trust believes students should have far more exposure to industry. Our colleges offer employer-led curricula, with employers engaging students via projects, masterclasses, webinars, well as physical placements.

Now is a fantastic time for colleges and businesses to work together and develop virtual work experience programmes. These can be delivered effectively through technology that businesses already have established and many employers are already doing this, including PWC and Lloyds.

So what might a virtual industry placement project look like? It might include:

  • An overview of the organisation and sector
  • Insight into different departments of the organisation: this is critical as it is not always covered in the curriculum
  • Roles and careers in the company – hearing from employees on how they have progressed
  • Overview of how technology is used in the industry and opportunity to use technology in a simulated environment
  • Learning about sustainability and innovation through research projects – something that may be used as an interview task
  • Shadowing online meetings with internal teams or external contacts
  • Taking part in projects established before the placement and supported by an industry mentor
  • Digital challenges
  • Learning about the recruitment process from HR teams and experiencing an online assessment centre and interview
  • Webinar on impact of Covid-19 on the employer
  • Virtual tours of facilities

This generic programme can then be adapted for individual industries, such as:

  • A project to develop a menu for a restaurant and present online to the chef
  • Digital design challenges in construction
  • Project on assistive technology in healthcare

Crucially, developing a virtual industry placement programme will not only provide opportunities for students to learn from employers, but will help them develop many other skills. These include developing teamwork, problem solving, decision making, collaborative communication and writing skills. Most importantly, however, it will develop students’ use of technology in a way they simply can’t experience in a classroom environment.

So at a time when young people are facing huge challenges in terms of progressing into jobs, it’s time to do things differently. Colleges must work with employers in a progressive way and make the changes needed to support our future economy.